Dealing with toddler tantrums can be a challenging and exhausting experience for young parents like me. Tantrums are bound to happen in young children who are learning to express their emotions and navigate new environments. I must admit that the ‘terrible twos’ are sneaking up on my son, Levi, who is almost two years old. So, if you find yourself outright fearful of sudden tantrum throwdowns, I completely feel your pain.

Toddlers lack the vocabulary and emotional maturity to express their feelings; tantrums are typically a way of expressing frustration during their early years of life. According to UCLA Health, “temper tantrums often start at about one year of age. They continue until age two to three. They start to happen less often as a child becomes more able to communicate their wants and needs.”

Levi was having a tantrum because he did not want to get off his chair after he was done with his meal. Photo By Amairani Hernandez for CALÓ NEWS.

Providing a safe environment

As a parent, I realize how important it is for me to provide a safe space for my son, somewhere he is allowed to release his emotions freely. Ultimately, I’ve learned that a proactive approach combined with an understanding of my child’s needs will lead to more peaceful interaction and a more peaceful home. 

Having grown up in a Mexican household with a mom who was a “yeller,” I knew exactly what I did not want. In any interaction I had with my mom, the more she yelled, the more stressed I became. It was a really bad habit of hers, I must say.

I remember when I was pregnant with my son, everyone warned me about the newborn stage. How I would lose sleep, change diapers constantly and hear the baby crying all the time. My whole pregnancy, I mentally prepared myself for what was to come. Little did I know I was going to have the best newborn stage experience with my son, Levi. It’s funny how most parents warned me about the newborn stage but not the terrible twos.

As I’m not entering that phase with my toddler, I know there will also be some “terrific twos.” Watching my toddler grow is a bittersweet moment. They are now expanding their language and may start learning their colors, ABC’s, or 1-2-3’s. They may even say, “I love you, mom.”

According to UCLA Health, “a child having a tantrum may seem totally out of control. But these fits of rage—stomping, screaming, and throwing themselves to the floor—are a normal part of childhood development. Temper tantrums often happen only with a parent.”

My son, Levi, is really emotionally attached to me. Most of the time, that means I am the one who deals with all his tantrums. Even though that’s his way of communicating his feelings, these tantrums are also a challenging learning experience for parents. Your child can teach you a great deal when you learn to comprehend what caused him or her to have a temper tantrum. The outbursts may seem confusing at first, but over time, a parent can learn to pick up signals and causes and hopefully begin to avoid or de-escalate incidents.

Parenthood means having easy days and difficult days. Photo By Amairani Hernandez for CALÓ NEWS.

Toddler triggers

Some triggers that can lead to tantrums are the following:

  • Hunger or tiredness
  • Frustration due to a lack of language skills
  • Overstimulation or discomfort
  • Transitions or changes in routine
  • Unmet needs or desires
  • Testing boundaries

An understanding of these triggers can assist parents in anticipating and potentially preventing tantrums. There are some situations in which a toddler’s attention can be redirected before a tantrum breaks out. Sometimes my partner tickles or throws Levi into the air in an attempt to distract him and avoid the tantrum. Some days it’s effective, and some days it’s not.

As another method of preventing tantrums, we have established a routine for our son. Children benefit from routines because they know what to expect, and it also provides a sense of stability in their day-to-day lives. Some important routines include regular meal times, nap times and bedtime schedules. These strategies will not only help manage tantrums but also create a positive parent-child relationship.

Dr. Monsalve and toddler tantrums

I recently spoke with Dr. Gloria Monsalve, who is a bilingual family physician and an advocate for patients in the San Fernando Valley. She received her medical degree from Colombia’s Industrial University of Santander Faculty of Medicine and has been in practice for more than 15 years, helping those in low-income communities, specifically the Latino community. I voiced some of my concerns to her and she helped me further navigate the subject.

Dr. Gloria Monsalve is a bilingual family physician in the San Fernando Valley. Photo courtesy of Dr. Gloria Monsalve.

Monsalve explained that tantrums happen when kids want to communicate that they are tired, hungry or uncomfortable. She said that due to their limited vocabulary of words, toddlers have difficulty communicating at the age of two. So, when they get frustrated, toddler’s turn that into a tantrum.

“For example, sometime’s the child wants the parent to pay attention immediately, or the child may want something in that moment,” Monsalve said. “Tantrums usually begin when they are 12–18 months old, and then they get worse between the ages of two and three.

Most of the time, what leads Levi into a tantrum is when he is tired or hasn’t napped all day. You can easily tell by the way he is acting. He starts to throw everything on the floor; everything he does will get him mad, and that is my cue to put him to bed.

Another reason that can lead him into a tantrum is when he is trying to do something like put his colors away in a box, but he can’t seem to get it right. That will also make him easily frustrated.

Monsalve also went on to explain that tantrums usually last from five to 10 minutes and that they can happen once in a while or as often as every day. Thankfully, Levi doesn’t have one every day, but he does have one once in a while, especially on long road trips from Bakersfield to Los Angeles. Either it happens on the way there or on the way back home. I totally get it now – no one wants to sit in a car for more than two hours. It’s exhausting!

Among the points Monsalve made, she pointed out how sometimes tantrums are the result of not being able to communicate, being tired and hungry or the way the family acts towards the child. “If there’s something dysfunctional at home, for example, if the child sees that the parents scream or yell, the child starts to think that’s normal and it’s not.” She said that it’s also very important to pay attention to all of our child’s details and signals.

Monsalve also provided me with suggestions on how parents can calm their children down during tantrums. “First of all, it’s important that the parent doesn’t throw a tantrum, too,” Monsalve said. 

She explained how easy it is for a parent to lose their patience, start to stress and start yelling at the child. “Remember, as the parent, you have to stay calm and collected and stay away from the adult tantrums,” she said.

As a parent, I try to understand what my child may be going through. Whenever my child overwhelms me, I try to remember that he is just a little person who can’t really tell me what he wants or how he feels. That usually helps me treat the situation better. If adults can get frustrated, so can little toddlers.

As a parent, I realize how important it is for me to provide a safe space for my son, even when I’m feeling overwhelmed by his tantrums. Photo By Amairani Hernandez for CALÓ NEWS.

Monsalve recommended that in order to create a safe environment for a child, we need to listen to them and talk in a soft manner as well. Because if we start yelling at our child, that’s only going to escalate the tantrum. “Talking in a softly positive way usually works, but you can also distract your child from a tantrum,” Monsalve said. 

Moreover, she said if that child is crying for a toy, simply give it to them. Many parents will say that you’re spoiling a child, but that’s not the case because you are controlling the situation and communicating at the same time. 

Another recommendation that she had when a child is having a tantrum is for a parent to react with a hug. “Some children react to sensory symbolism, but most importantly, try to talk to your child because, although they can’t communicate that well, they do understand what you are telling them,” Monsalve said.

As most parents, my partner and I are just winging it most days. These are just some of the techniques I use to try to reduce tantrums and not eliminate them, as they are part of our child’s development. My hat goes off to all of us parents who are just trying to make it through the day. 

Either way, with open arms, I welcome the “terrible twos,” because they are a sign that my little Levi is growing up.

If there is anything I can help young mothers and fathers with, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me at Follow my Mami & Me column here.

Amairani Hernandez is a native of Los Angeles and a graduate of the California State University of Los Angeles with a degree in Broadcast Journalism. She is a staff multimedia journalist, who focuses on...